Cancel Culture Justice

On Justice and Open Debate

I support free and open debate. I support what the authors of A Letter call “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” What I don’t support are threats, harassment and abuse. And I oppose people who use their power and privilege to oppress the less powerful and less privileged.

I don’t think it’s too fine a distinction. Arguments are not hard to spot; they are based on reasons, ideally on evidence, and they support some point of view. The other sort of discourse looks nothing like this. It is – at best – dogma supported by more dogma. More often, it’s just a stream of verbal attacks. It is a pernicious form of dialogie, and it ought quite rightly to be censured.

Let’s just for the moment take the following as a given:

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.”

Let’s think about what this means. Voices that have been silenced, often violently, in the past have now finally reached the point where they are being heard, and where some of the reforms they are proposing are actually being enacted. These arguments are based on concrete evidence, not the least of which was video of a man being murdered in broad daylight by the police.

But there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?

“But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

I think we can agree that it has awakened a new set of moral attitudes, among them including things like “‘driving while black’ is not a crime”, “it is wrong to simply look away from sexual abuse and rape”, and “advocating for white supremacy is not acceptable”. From my perspective these are long past due, but in some circles of society, they have taken a lot longer to take root.

But these new norms, and others like them, do nothing to weaken our norms of open debate. There are and always have been many many things you simply cannot advocate and expect to keep your job or your publishing contract. Try selling some child pornography and see how your career fares, for example. Advocate for the use of hard drugs, and see what the reaction is. Support and campaign for communism. Call for the defenestration of the wealthy. Deny the Holocaust. You get the idea – nobody does or would support any of these things, and we would not be surprised if people did not vigorously respond, if not throw you in jail outright. And for good reason.

In recent years there has been enough evidence to convince people that this list should be extended, if for no other reason than that the right has been acting as though no such rules apply. From the Bush doctrine that (among other things) legitimized pre-emptive war and sanctioned torture, to the Trump doctrine of sanctioned racism, extrajudicial violence, recognition of Nazis as “good people” and a “grab her by the pussy” ethic, it has become clear that a fundamentally immoral set of values has taken hold in our elite.

I think the case against invasion, torture, racism, fascism, sexism, and LGBT rights opposition has advanced far beyond “ideological conformity”, because I think there are no longer (if there ever were) any good faith arguments to be made in favour of those positions. What the events of the last few years have shown is that support for them is based in nothing more than blunt assertion of power and privilege, and not reason and argument at all. And that opposition to them is an equally blunt – and morally just – rejection of them.

Jessica Valenti offers a nice recap of the behaviours that are being defended by the authors of the Letter. The professor who was investigated was a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class. The editor who lost his job ran a piece advocating the use of military force against peaceful protesters. An author published bigoted ideas and debunked myths about trans women. Another editor published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by more than 20 women of sexual assault.

None of these constitutes a good faith argument. They are all, respectively, attacks on their targets of hate. They are incitements to violence, to social reprisals against the victims of these attacks, simply because the victims pushed back. As Valenti writes, “The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence, and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”

The push-back is not against dialogue or discussion, but instead against a wall of hard-right propaganda that seeks to undermine the fundamental principles of democracy. There’s no reason why we should accept that in a democratic society; being offensive isn’t the same as offering an argument in favour of it. It’s not that the proponents are arguing in favour of fascism, they are fascist, and expecting us to recognize that as acceptable. They are racist, they are misogynist, they are intolerant. And when we run up against them in the office or on the street, we won’t turn away, but we will confront them, and refuse them the power and the privilege they desire.

And let’s be clear, also, that none of the so-called ‘reprisals’ against those referenced by the authors of a Letter come close to actual illiberalism. Look at what the responses are – an editor loses his job, a writer doesn’t get a book published, a journalist is told not to write about something, professors are investigated, a researcher is fired, heads of organizations are ousted. These pale in comparison to actual illiberalism practiced by their ilk as recently as, well, this week.

The writers of the Letter cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they should have carte-blanche to write and behave in any way they please, without regard to the people they harm, while at the same time saying that the people being harmed should not write and behave in ways that defend themselves against that harm. If they really think illiberalism is the danger, then perhaps they should look in the mirror. They are the danger.



Fixing the Vote

What Ottawa City Councillor Tim Tierney did is a matter of public record:

Last November, Ontario Provincial Police charged Tierney with corrupt practices under the Ontario Municipal Elections Act for trying to induce another candidate to drop out of the 2018 election.

according to OPP documents filed in court last year, Tierney called Schurter on his cell phone. Schurter put the call on speaker phone, and three people in the Elections Ottawa office alleged they heard the councillor offer to make a donation to a local food bank if Schurter withdrew his candidacy.

Now it’s not my place to presume guilt of innocence, especially given that the Crown has withdrawn the charges and agreed to a settlement with Tierney yesterday. But I’ve seen nothing beyond this prima facie evidence of a pretty strong case that could have been made.

And the reasons for dropping the case are transparently flaccid. It “would have been a ‘lengthy prosecution’ and that, if it had been successful, would have resulted in an expensive byelection.” Also, “the allegations of bribery were made public during the campaign, and noted the people of Beacon Hill-Cyville still re-elected Tierney by a massive majority.”

All that could well be true, but those aren’t the bases on which we decide whether to proceed with a prosecution. It’s like saying “sure, maybe he murdered the man, but it would cost a lot to find out, and the man would have died anyways.”

It’s not the sort of justice that would be meted out to you or me. But it’s the sort of justice the rich, powerful and connected have come to expect. It’s the sort of justice where we can overlook the allegations with a slap on the wrist if a full prosecution would be too inconvenient.

We’ve entered into an era now whether the foundations of democracy are under attack, where there are concerns of influence from external powers, where money is playing an increasingly oversized role, and where we are not even sure whether to trust the voting process itself.

We can’t simply allow a person to violate the rules and allow the results to stand if the win is big enough.

The result should have been overturned and a by-election held. I don’t care whether Tim Tierney agreed to pay two months’ salary. He shouldn’t have been entitled to it in the first place, as his own admission of wrongdoing shows.

This is a principle that should apply generally, shouldn’t it?

Image: Ottawa Matters

Ethics Justice

Handmaiden to Despots?

Responding to Heather Morrison, who writes,

As any movement grows and flourishes, decisions made will turn out to have unforeseen consequences. Achieving the goals of the movement requires critical reflection and occasional changes in policy and procedure.The purpose of this post is to point out that the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) appears to be inadvertently acting as a handmaiden to at least one despotic government, facilitating dissemination of works subject to censorship and rejecting open access journals that would be suitable venues for critics of the despotic government. There is no blame and no immediately obvious remedy, but solving a problem begins with acknowledging that a problem exists and inviting discussion of how to avoid and solve the problem. OA friends, please consider this such an invitation.

Sustaining the knowledge commons full post:

This is an issue I have thought a lot about. My work takes me to various countries, some of which might be classified as despotic. I have worked with the governments of those countries, always from the perspective of advancing open access and free learning. The question I have asked myself is whether it is appropriate to work with them.

I have decided that it is, and for a very simple reason: any principled selection process would leave me with very few countries to work with, if any.

It is easy to point to a particular country and suggest that we should not work with that country. But if we apply the same principle that led us to that decision the we are left with a significant practical problem. And if we extend that principle to agents of the country, including companies that support that country, or customers of that country, or suppliers to that country, as we most surely should, then we are left with no countries in which to work.

And at a certain point, when a recommendation to boycott a given country is made, I find that I have to ask, why this country? What made the person select this country to address, as opposed to one of the many others engaged in the same practice?

I will most certainly concur with Heather Morrison that a problem exists. There are countries in the world that murder their own citizens, either extra-legally, or by some sort of state sanctioned capital punishment. There are many countries that interfere with the publication of academic materials on political grounds. There is definitely a problem, one of many problems plaguing our world today.

How to address this? It is easy to identify what we oppose and to work against it. But my experience is that, in the long term, if is much more effective to work for something. It is also a lot harder, which is maybe why we don’t see so much of it.

We need, globally, to build the structures and institutions that will address issues such as this. Support for entities such as the United Nations and the World Court will go a long way toward addressing oppressive regimes. It is essential to build international trade regulations that prioritize justice, human rights, and environment as much as they do the needs of global capital.

It is tempting to short-cut this process, to have (say) DOAJ stand on its own against countries that oppress their citizens. But this is not justice, nor can it be seen as any pretense of justice. Only by building the institutions that serve all people, on a global scale, will we be able to address the injustices that we, as individuals, seek to redress. Any other approach would be parochial and sectarian.

Meanwhile, as an individual, I stay firm and unwavering in my own commitment to individual autonomy, celebration of diversity, an open society, and collective governance. Change happens not by changing governments, but by changing people, and the only way to change people is to be an example of the change you want to see in them.



I’ll make this simple: “There is no genetic evidence to support any racist ideology.”

The preoccupation with race is both wrong and misguided. Wrong, because even if you could distinguish in a scientific way between races, it does not follow that any race is more pure, or more superior, than any other.

And misguided because you can’t really distinguish in a scientific way between races. You can at best approximate. But science isn’t about approximation. If you want to use ‘race’ at all, use race as defined by DNA, not the ridiculous classifications used in media (and even academic papers) such as “black, white, Asian, Hispanic, whatever”.

Yes, there are differences between individuals based on their genetics. But these differences are pretty minor, and the differences within a ‘race’ are far greater than those between races.

But more to the point, the preponderance of differences between people are based on social and environmental factors. Key among these are mothers’ health, infant nutrition, early education, and the home environment.

We should stop using ‘race’ as a classification system. It makes about as much sense as phrenology, and the data produced are no more accurate. If we must classify between groups of humans, we should differentiate between factors that really matter: those who grew up in poverty and those who did not, those who had access to education and those who did not, those raised in war zones and those who were not, etc.

Racism is wrong. It shouldn’t have to be said, but there it is.